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Suro (October 13, 1999)

She'd called last April, just as the weather was warming up.

"My name is Suro."

Syrup? I asked.

"No, Suro. Sir-O. S-u-r-o. One word. My friend Leonard gave me your number. You're the newspaper guy, right?"

On full dead beat alert, I conceded I was the newspaper guy.

"I'm a clairvoyant, holistic body worker," Suro said. "My friend told me Anderson Valley is a counter-culture kind of place where I could find a place to live in exchange for body work. I'm in Lake County but I have to move. I want to put an ad in your paper and I want to come over there and look for a place to live. Do you have a place where I could sleep for a couple of days?"

I said that we weren't set up for overnight guests. Suro ignored the dis-invitation.

"I have a sleeping bag."

Sorry, I said, not here.

"I heard Anderson Valley is a counter-culture kind of place."

Not any more, I said. Albion is the place you want. Although Anderson Valley is counter-culture, you might say, it's not counter-culture in the way you want.

Suro ignored my little joke, of course.

"Is there some place over there I could stay?"

I said there are some nice campgrounds.

"Will you run a free ad for me?"

No. Tell me what you want to say, I'll tell you how much it will cost you to say it and you send me the money. 

"Money?" she asked in a disbelieving voice?

Money, I said.

She sent the ad and four dollars cash.  "Will exchange  body work for a place to stay." 

A week later Suro called to say in an aggrieved, accusatory voice, "Nobody responded. I don't have a place to live over there and I have to leave where I am."

I said I was sorry there had been no response to her ad.

"Will you run it again without charging me?

No.

On a warm day at the end of the month, a newish sedan with Lake County's logo emblazoned on its doors pulled up in front of Boont Berry Farm. The Lake County car disgorged a plump, fifty-ish woman dressed in a retro tie-dyed outfit. Several neatly-assembled bundles, a couple of cardboard boxes and an apparatus resembling an ironing board were also off-loaded.

Boont Berry Farm is all Anderson Valley has left in the way of what might be called hippie retail establishments. It sells incense, patchouli oil, or whatever it's called, and New Settler Interview, but there's a cash register on the counter and clairvoyant body workers, like everyone else, are expected to pay their way. Suro, hippie homing instincts fully functional, had at least found her way to the only place in Anderson Valley where artifacts of the counterculture were sold.

After being assured that a rice dish was organic, Suro bargained it down a couple of bucks and, half-way through it, warned Kevin Jones, Boont Berry's friendly counterman who'd generously discounted her meal, to "quit smirking at me."

Suro had arrived in Anderson Valley and Lake County, it seems, had committed an act of what  is called "patient dumping."

Lake County authorities were well aware of Suro but denied driving her to Boonville. A woman who answered the telephone at Lake County's Mental Health office groaned at the mention of her name. 

"I'm sorry, sir. We're not allowed to comment on patients. Just like everyone else they are entitled to privacy."

Low moans at the mention of a patient's name, while perhaps understandable in this particular case, would still have to be marked down in the "unprofessional response" column in any assessment of the inland helping professions. Low Moans piously added, "Lake County would never drive a client to another county and just drop her off."

I guess we were seeing things that weren't there that day. 

Suro, it seems, had moved in with a 90-year-old Lake County woman and wouldn't leave. The authorities had become aware that some sort of hippie relic had moved on to the old lady's property and had over-stayed her welcome. Suro was encouraged to move on.

"I'm a Christian," the old lady said, "but even Christians have their limits. I thought Suro was a Christian too, but when I heard her praying in the morning I wonder what God she was talking to. I couldn't understand any of it."

Official Lake County had pried Suro off the old lady's property and on to ours. 

After her reduced-fee inaugural meal at Boont Berry, Suro landed at the Ziemer Brothers Soccer Camp about six miles south of town on the Mathias Ranch where she apparently massaged sore soccer muscles in exchange for food and shelter. It wasn't long before she was re-deposited in downtown Boonville. She hadn't seemed sports oriented, but sports fans come in all kinds of packages.

David "King Fix-it" Severn, a perennial soft touch, was first among the local persons who  tried to help Suro. Severn operates a satellite television sales and maintenance business out of an old fruit stand on the south edge of Boonville. The structure is not designed for living. Severn, taking pity on the homeless woman, told Suro she could sleep in his shop for "a couple of nights" until she secured permanent housing. The next morning, Severn arrived at his shop to find himself locked out. Severn could hear Suro moving around inside. He called to her through the door. "Suro, we've got to talk."

Suro responded with a top volume recording of what sounded like a Native American religious ceremony.

"I was being very polite," Severn said later, as if he, the wronged party, were obligated to be polite in the circumstances.

"Please, Suro, open the door."

Suro screamed as if someone had plunged a knife in her back.

"I don't know what that means, Suro," Severn calmly replied, already reconciled to long hours of negotiations with the lunatic who had appropriated his premises.  

The squatter emitted another primeval shriek. 

Severn persisted. "I'm not going away, Suro. We need to talk. If you need some time to get it together, I'll give you time. But we need to talk."

Most people would have deployed the battering rams and the tear gas canisters that first morning, but it took Severn a week and a changed lock before Suro stopped spending nights in the shed.  And even after she'd left whenever Severn saw her in Boonville she'd waddle furiously off in the other direction from her benefactor. Severn spent many more hours calling the helping professionals in vain attempts to get Suro off the streets. She wasn't well and it can be very dangerous for unwell persons on the streets.

  In the ensuing months, Suro had racked up unpleasant encounters with just about every person in every public place from Boonville to Navarro.

She stopped in to see me several times, always in the middle of the day. Once she asked me if I could help her out with a "loan." I gave her $20. "I need $70!" she snapped. 

On another occasion Suro appeared and proceeded to make a series of requests. "Can I take a shower?" she asked. 

No, I said, feeling like a curmudgeon but knowing her well enough to understand that the shower was certainly the first of many impositions. "Why not?" Suro asked. 

Because we're a newspaper, not a bath house, I explained. 

"Can I borrow a towel?" she asked. 

No, I said. 

"Do you have $60?" 

No, I said. 

"Can I have what you do  have?" she asked. 

I handed her five bucks, which is all I did have.

"You don't have more?" Suro wheedled.

Do you take credit cards? I asked, immediately feeling ashamed of myself for taunting a crazy person. But Suro was a highly irritating crazy person, and to some a threatening and ominous crazy person because she was large and angry and unpredictable. David Severn was the only person in the community who didn't immediately shuffle her out of his proximity.

"Is your wife here?" Suro asked. "Will she give me some money?" 

If she won't give me any money, I said, your chances of getting money from her wouldn't seem to be too good.

  At that moment my wife, a person whose tolerance for the counterculture ended the day she arrived in America in 1967 and saw her first hippie, walked into the office. (If you'll permit an ethnic generalization, I defy any of you to produce a Chinese hippie — a foreign born Chinese hippie.) 

"You're not French!" Suro greeted her. "Your husband won't let me take a shower." 

My wife, instantly indignant, said, "Do I look French? Get out of here right now or I'll call Keith."  

"Who's Keith?" Suro asked. 

"The policeman," my wife said. 

"I know him," Suro said, unperturbed at the prospect of law enforcement being summoned.

"You're going to know him a lot better if you don't leave right now," the anti-hippie said.

Suro, got up and headed towards the door, pausing to say over her shoulder, "I'm going to sue you."

She wandered around The Valley all summer, up and down 128. I'd see her on hundred degree days, a kaleidoscopic bundle of vivid flower power colors, shuffling along the highway towards Philo then, later in the day, shuffling back towards Boonville. Twice I saw her standing  stock still out in the roadbed on blind curves, perplexed, as if all her attention was focused on trying to figure out where she was and how she'd gotten there. If the driver of the next careening vehicle didn't see her in time, Suro would have been a dead body worker.

Locals would pick her up and give her a lift to whatever destination she had in mind and was convenient to them, but they invariably got the Severn treatment. One elderly Boonville lady who had given Suro a lift had to call for help when Suro announced she was moving in and refused to leave. 

On morning, Suro burst in on Don and Marianne Pardini, demanding that they do something about David Severn whose shop is next door to their home. As Don Pardini called Severn's number for a clarification of the Suro situation, Suro accused Pardini of faking the call.

A free meal from the cook at the Boonville Brewery? Suro haughtily sent it back to the kitchen on the grounds that it wasn't organic.

The incidence of unhappy encounters with virtually everyone Suro came in contact with during her days on the Boonville to Philo and back again shuttle seemed to be increasing.

Deputy Squires got to know Suro quite well. "She was a 5150, all right," the deputy says in the numerical cop shorthand for nutso, "but they wouldn't take her at Mental Health because she didn't meet their guidelines."

In other words, Suro wasn't crazy enough to be cared for. There are literal armies of these tweeners out there.

Suro appeared at the Horn of Zeese for breakfast. She ordered oatmeal. Informed that the restaurant was out of oatmeal, Suro began shouting that she was the victim of an oatmeal plot. 

"These people are being very unfair to me. They have oatmeal but they won't give me any."

"She's getting really weird," Severn said with typical understatement. She'd arrived weird and he'd already absorbed the brunt of the weird.  "Take this as a lesson that we're woefully unprepared to deal with these kinds of people in our community. The system doesn't take care of them."

Severn speculated that Suro had "once had it together" but had snapped. Something bad had happened to her that had caused her to totter over the edge. He pointed out that Suro did have training as a body worker, that she owned the equipment she needed to work at her profession, that he was even aware that she had a few clients who'd come all the way to Boonville from Lake County for massages. Her business was shrinking in direct proportion to the accelerated loss of her mental health, of course, and Severn still spent part of his day trying to get Suro some help. 

But Severn was right; Suro didn't belong on the streets wandering around in a sort of bellicose fog; rude, aggressive, threatening everyone she came into contact with.

Suro was crazy and getting crazier, but she obviously knew how to live without a permanent address, or any address at all.

She appeared several times a week at Glad's Bakery in downtown Boonville where she would sequester herself for hours in the publicly accessible restroom. Her ablutions couldn't have required two to three hours, but the bathroom was not available to either Glad's staff or her customers or to the staff of adjacent Bruce Bread.

Cathy Paula, a long-time Bruce Bread employee, finally confronted Suro and told her to get out of the restroom so "the rest of us can use it." Ms. Paula, like most of us boomers, is at least half-hippie. Suro denounced her as an "uptight redneck."

Meanwhile, Good Samaritan Severn had become Suro's primary hate object. During the days Severn was trying to talk to her to get her to leave his shop with his resorting to drastic eviction processes, Suro would hustle off in the opposite direction whenever she saw him. But now that she was out of Severn's shop, whenever and wherever she spotted him in Boonville she headed straight for him and denounced him in this very odd way.

"You David Severn you. You David So-Called Severn." And there the imprecation ended. 

David Severn was now a curse. Around town, Severn's friends greeted him as "So-Called Severn"  or simply "So-Called."

Suro wrote Severn a long letter declaring that she had every right to his shop as her residence  because she was a "holistic clairvoyant healer." Suro said she was going to sic her "Native American attorney" on "So-Called David Severn"  and that he'd better haul his so-called self to the mattresses because he was in deep trouble.

"You know," Severn says, "I agree with her in a way. We all should be guaranteed a roof over our heads." 

When Suro had abandoned So-Called Severn's shed, he'd carefully boxed her belongings and stacked them outside where Suro could retrieve them at her leisure. The bundles remained outside the shed for nearly six months.

Suro continued to wander up and down The Valley. She panhandled for meal money and people continued to give her rides when they saw her shuffling along 128. She was often spotted in Ukiah where, it seemed, she was at last getting assistance of some kind, although she insisted that a big check was waiting for her at the Philo Post Office. 

"Frankly," Shiela ?, a clerk at the Philo Post Office says, "I felt menaced by her. She called me a liar and kept going on about her constitutional rights. I told her, 'Your life problems are not my fault.' And she'd say, 'Yes, they are. You're holding my money.'"

Suro told Shiela she'd gotten a divine message that Shiela was going to help her find a place to live. Shiela explained that as a postal clerk she was not qualified to process divine messages unless they had postage on them. Suro threatened to unleash the entire national security apparatus on the two-person Philo Post Office if she didn't get her money.

"She ran a couple of our customers right out of here," Shiela sighed.

Suro was often seen emerging from the brush at various sites along 128. She was adept at making her home wherever night found her. And she'd help herself to whatever was on display at the Bates' Apple Farm and cadge this or that daily living item from the uninitiated. The old girl was a survivor, no doubt about it. 

As the summer drew on, a week or two would pass without a Suro sighting, but then she'd reappear and another round of brusque encounters with various citizens along Anderson Valley's twenty miles of 128 would commence.

Diane Jones, a professional beautician with a salon in Boonville, and another unwitting Samaritan, cut and washed Suro's hair, perhaps resisting an impulse to take an ear with one of her locks when Suro demanded that Mrs. Jones take the extra time to tint Suro's free coif in the prevailing fashion.   

But then, some time in August, Suro disappeared. There were rumors that she was in Point Arena; she was sighted in Fort Bragg and Ukiah. But she was no longer a resident of Anderson Valley although her belongings remained neatly stacked outside So-Called Severn's shop near the Fairgrounds parking lot. Severn had received a hand-written inventory from Suro warning him that he risked big trouble with the federal government and Suro's "Native American attorney" if the following items were not among her belongings when she appeared to reclaim them: "my Indian flute tape; my maroon cardigan sweater; my Native American print pants; my mustard and vinaigrette salad dressings; and my neck and eye pillows." 

Finally, just last week, nearly six months after So-Called Severn's charity had blown up in his face, Suro appeared at Severn's shop with a new Samaritan, an Albion man named Howie Seidel, to pick up her eye pillows and vinaigrette. Suro apologized to Severn for all the trouble she'd caused him, thanked him for taking care of her belongings, and drove off down 128 towards the Coast and the sanctuary of Albion. Suro was in total possession of herself and her, well, possessions. Severn speculated that she'd finally been corralled by the "helping professionals" and had had her meds readjusted so she could function more or less normally within the tolerant embrace of Mendocino society.

But no good deed goes unpunished; twice in Severn's case. Alerted that "hippies" seemed to be rallying at Severn's shop amidst his tools and broken satellite dishes, the lady who owns it informed her long-time tenant that his rent  would be $300 a month as of November 1st, up from $100 a month. Along with the rent hike, Severn had to endure an anti-hippie tirade of the most tedious and unpleasant type that seemed plucked from 1967. You know, the one that links hippies to communism to dope to tree huggers to the general deterioration of western civ. The hippies did it all.

David Severn is looking for a new shop.

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